These meals need wheels

Monday, February 4, 2013
Waterbury Republican American
Waterbury, CT

The dense fog hung low on an unseasonably warm Wednesday as Judy Wilhelms navigated her Subaru Forester through the maze of streets in Heritage Village.

She wedged the car into a parking space in front of a row of condominiums as her passenger, Elaine Colt, inspected the list of meal recipients that morning.

"She needs a diabetic (meal)," Wilhelms said, referring to the nutrition requirements of a woman who was about to receive lunch and dinner from the two women.

Colt fetched two trays of food from the trunk and disappeared down a paved path toward the front door. She was back a minute later, and the women were off to their next stop.

In a town with the highest percentage of elderly residents in Connecticut, Meals on Wheels is a vital service for seniors who are homebound, can't afford food, don't know how to cook or simply want someone else to prepare their meals.

Volunteer drivers, mostly retirees, keep the operation going, but in winter -- when many of those retirees head south for weeks or months at a time -- it becomes a challenge to keep the schedule filled.

"It's fairly serious problem right now," said Trish Donohue, marketing coordinator in the elder services division at New Opportunities Inc., the Waterbury-based organization that operates Meals on Wheels in Southbury and surrounding towns. "The volunteer coordinator is really struggling right now to try to get people."

In other communities with fewer retirees per capita, like Waterbury and Danbury, it's not as hard to fill shifts, Donohue said.

New Opportunities maintains a list of about 30 volunteers in Southbury, but not all are always available to drive, she said.

A minimum of 20 people are needed each week to drive the two routes in Southbury if each volunteer does one shift a week with a partner.

One route, in Heritage Village, takes about an hour to complete and serves roughly 15 people. The other route, a 22-mile drive, serves up to 20 people in neighborhoods other than Heritage Village, and can be done in about two hours.

Wilhelms and Colt generally drive the village route because they live there. They have worked together for about five months, and volunteer at least once a week.

Wilhelms delivered Meals on Wheels when she and her husband, Bill, lived on Long Island.

She baby-sat for her grandchildren for a few years after the couple moved to the village 13 years ago, but when the children were old enough to go to school, Wilhelms offered to deliver food again.

"I just thought it was a great program," she said. "It doesn't take that much of your time, and it's a very uplifting feeling."

Colt began to volunteer about 18 months ago when she retired from Cartus, a relocation company in Danbury.

She read about Meals on Wheels in the newspaper, and decided to pitch in.

"It gives me a feeling that I'm helping others, which makes me feel good," she said. "It gets me out of the house. It gets me a little exercise."

Exercise is certainly a benefit, as Colt demonstrated last week. She was in and out of the car 15 times to deliver food trays to people's doors.

The meals are prepared in Waterbury and are prepackaged on color-coded trays. The women know which tray color is a "regular" meal, and which is for diabetics or people with high cholesterol.

The menus change daily; on Wednesday, lunch consisted of milk, juice, fruit, beans and chicken. The dinner tray included roast beef, carrots and cauliflower.

Recipients are asked to pay $5 a day, but a donation is not mandatory, Donohue said.

"It's what you can afford to pay," she said. "There are some clients who can't afford to pay. They are totally destitute."

The volunteer drivers aren't told why a person is on the delivery list, only that they may require a certain type of meal due to nutritional needs.

Wilhelms and Colt said they often spend a few moments at the door chatting with the meal recipients, knowing it may be their only contact of the day.

"Some of them like to talk. We try a little bit," Colt said. "Some of them, you can tell they're lonely."

Wilhelms said she has made nice acquaintances with meal recipients in the past, only to find they are abruptly taken off the delivery list.

Due to privacy laws, she usually doesn't find out whether the person died or perhaps moved somewhere else.

Last week, she and Colt -- who have become good friends since they started delivering together -- finished their route in about an hour.

One recipient wasn't home; she left a note on the door asking that her meal be put in the refrigerator at the senior center so she could pick it up later.

Most of the others were right by the door when Colt knocked or rang the bell.

"The people, they're very nice," Wilhelms said. "They really appreciate it when you come."

New Opportunities Inc., which runs the Meals on Wheels program in Greater Waterbury, needs volunteers to deliver meals in Southbury. Drivers must possess a good driving record, and be willing to drive at least one shift per month. To volunteer, call Trish Donohue, marketing coordinator in the elder services division at New Opportunities, at 203-575-4306.

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